Civil rights activist Bernard Lafayette Jr. speaking at annual MLK Day of Service

Bernard Lafayette Jr., right, is pictured with Martin Luther King Jr.
Bernard Lafayette Jr., right, is pictured with Martin Luther King Jr.

KEARNEY – The University of Nebraska at Kearney will celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. with a keynote address by civil rights activist and organizer Bernard Lafayette Jr.

Part of the third annual MLK Day of Service on campus, Lafayette will speak on the theme of “Nonviolence in a Time of Civil Unrest” at 11 a.m. Wednesday in the Nebraskan Student Union Ponderosa Room. The event is free and open to the public.

Lafayette began his activism while enrolled at American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, where he attended James Lawson’s nonviolence workshops alongside other students, including John Lewis, James Bevel and Diane Nash. He was a leader of the sit-in movement to end racial segregation at Nashville lunch counters and co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960.

Bernard Lafayette Jr.
Bernard Lafayette Jr.

As a 20-year-old, Lafayette was one of the original Freedom Riders, groups of Black and white Americans who deliberately violated Jim Crow laws and risked their safety by traveling together on buses to protest segregated bus terminals in Southern states. The groups were confronted by arresting police officers and mob violence along their routes, but also drew international attention to the civil rights movement.

Lafayette was severely beaten and imprisoned for his civil rights activism, but never abandoned his commitment to nonviolence.

He directed the Alabama Voter Registration Project in Selma and was appointed by King to be the national program administrator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and national coordinator of the Poor People’s Campaign. Additionally, he served as director of Peace and Justice in Latin America, chairman of the Consortium on Peace Research, Education and Development, director of PUSH Excel Institute and minister of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tuskegee, Alabama.

Lafayette earned his bachelor’s degree from American Baptist Theological Seminary and a master’s degree and doctorate from Harvard University. He’s held numerous academic positions, including president of American Baptist Theological Seminary, director of the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island, dean of the Graduate School at Alabama State University, scholar-in-residence at The King Center in Atlanta and senior scholar-in-residence at Emory University.

Lafayette has written several books about his experiences during the civil rights movement and he continues to travel internationally to promote social change through nonviolence. He received the National Civil Rights Museum’s Freedom Award in 2012 and the Mahatma Gandhi International Award for Reconciliation and Peace in 2016.

Following the keynote address, UNK students, employees and other guests are invited to participate in a service project until 5 p.m. in the Ponderosa Room. This year’s project includes a school supply drive and “letters of encouragement” for elementary students in Kearney, Lexington and Grand Island.

The MLK Day of Service is hosted by the Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion, with funding provided by UNK Student Engagement and Loper Programming and Activities Council.